January 22, 2014

Connor Graham Adapting To Major Junior, Hopes "Floodgates Are Open" After First Career Goal

The rookie season is the most trying one for any teenager stepping into the Ontario Hockey League, but especially so having to make the adjustment from the European game to the North American one.

A strange, round-about entry into the OHL has made 67’s forward Connor Graham’s young career a tough one – it still is tough now as he battles for ice time on a team deep on the left wing – but he’s finally found a solidified spot in Canada’s top Junior hockey circuit.

On January 9, Graham seemed to seal his position as a regular, scoring his first career OHL goal in an 8-3 blowout in Windsor.

“It felt great to finally get that monkey off my back,” said Graham.  “It felt like it took a really long time, but it was good to get it out of the way.”

At this point last season, getting on the scoresheet wasn’t the problem, but more so playing as a first-year in a different country.

Graham was drafted into the OHL by Saginaw in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, but was unable to crack the Spirit roster as a 16-year old.

Instead of leaving Canada to play in the United States, he took an opportunity to head overseas.

“My coach in Minor Midget played pro in Austria,” Graham said in regards to Ken Strong, a coach with the 2012 Toronto AAA Marlboros, who had a storied history in Austria.

Strong, who played for a decade in Europe, landed a two-year deal with Red Bull Salzburg to coach the junior squads early in the 2013 off-season.

Without a place to play by late off-season, Graham was invited to play for Salzburg’s developmental program.

“He had a coaching job and I didn't really have anywhere to go.  He said I was welcome to come over and I jumped at the chance.”

By jumping at the chance, Graham became a point-per-game player for Salzburg, as he and a teammate drew the attention of Junior teams in the National Capital Region.

The Gatineau Olympiques used their top import selection to draft Salzburg’s leading scorer Vaclav Karabacek.

Meanwhile, the wheels were in motion for the 67’s to acquire the other Red Bull forward hoping to head to the CHL.

“I got the call from Saginaw's manager,” Graham said.  “He told me Ottawa was interested, and asked if I would be interested.”

Shortly thereafter, Ottawa made one of the first deals in the OHL off-season by sending defenceman Sean Callaghan to the Spirit for Graham and a draft pick.

Graham committed to the Barberpoles just over a week later.

“It's a great city and a great organization.  I have some family that lives here and it was a no-brainer to come here.”

As easy as the decision was, the first half of his rookie season was anything but easy.

The 18-year old only appeared in 21 of Ottawa’s first 38 games on the season, often a healthy scratch or a fourth-liner without any special teams appearances.

So far, 2014 has proven to be far kinder.

Graham has appeared in every one of Ottawa’s games in the new calendar year and has been given some duties in the team’s top-six.

“This is the fun part about coaching a younger team,” said head coach Chris Byrne.  “It’s about seeing guys like Connor coming on, seeing guys get confidence and seeing them become comfortable in the league.”

As part of getting comfortable, it’s re-adapting to the smaller ice surface in Canada.

“You don't really think about it a whole lot,” says Graham regarding his time in Europe.  “The ice size really does play a major role, though.  It's a lot faster with a lot less hitting.” 

“But hockey's hockey.”

Whichever part of adapting to a new style of hockey was difficult for Graham, the first goal might be the spark needed to start putting up better numbers in the OHL.

“Hopefully the floodgates are open now.”

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